Why a Professor in Texas Hangs a ‘No Guns’ Sign in His Classroom

Photo courtesy of David Smith-Soto

David Smith-Soto posted this sign at the entrance to a journalism lab at the U. of Texas at El Paso. He later moved the sign to a bulletin board inside the classroom.
September 24, 2015

By next September, people will be legally allowed to carry concealed weapons on public-college campuses in Texas.

But David Smith-Soto, a senior lecturer in multimedia journalism at the University of Texas at El Paso, thinks the law is a bad idea. He hopes it will be challenged in court and never go into effect. Mr. Smith-Soto has written blog posts about why he’s against the law, and he’s hung a sign in his classroom that symbolically declares the space a gun-free zone­.

The El Paso professor’s protest got wider exposure after a Fox News television station interviewed him, and now it’s drawing support from professors on other campuses, too.

Of course, not every academic is against such laws. A lawsuit filed on behalf of a professor of law at the University of Missouri at Columbia challenges a ban on guns on the Missouri system’s campuses.

But advocates of keeping campuses gun-free have been attracting more attention recently, especially after the fatal shooting of a professor on a Mississippi campus last week.

The Chronicle spoke with Mr. Smith-Soto about why he’s been so outspoken on the issue. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. I understand you put up a sign in your classroom that says "no guns allowed." When did you hang that up?

A. The minute that the governor signed that legislation, I put up my sign outside the door, and then I moved it inside the classroom, because I don’t want guns in my classroom.

Q. What compelled you to put that up?

A. I was so angry about the whole thing. I just went to my printer, printed it, and put it up the minute he signed that bill. I consider that law, like I said before, one gun too far. Guns belong wherever they belong, but they don’t belong in my classroom — or anybody’s classroom, for that matter.

Q. Where in the classroom is the sign?

A. Right now it’s inside my classroom on the bulletin board. First it was outside the door, but other professors use that. It’s a newsroom, it’s like a lab. And I didn’t want to infringe on anybody else’s problems or opinions, so I put it inside on the bulletin board.

Q. What’s the reaction from students to seeing that in the classroom?

A. The reaction has been like no reaction. They don’t care one way or the other; it’s not on their radar right now.

Q. What has your conversation with other faculty members or administrators been like?

A. I haven’t actually had a single conversation with anybody, but emails have been sent to me to show that there’s support among the faculty. It’s not overwhelming, you know, people are probably hesitant to stand up against the state law. But I did get a lot of support from UT at Austin; when they saw the interview that KFOX did of me, they immediately put around a petition to try to recruit 100 professors from every UT university to stand on the issue of no guns in the classroom.

Q. Have you signed the petition?

A. Mentally, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, yes. I don’t know where it is for me to actually put my name down on something, but it’s pretty clear that I’m in favor of it.

Q. There are task forces at every University of Texas campus looking at how to carry out this legislation on campus. Is this something you anticipate trying to talk to the task-force members about?

A. Well, actually, right after the TV spot on Sunday, on Monday or Tuesday, my university, UTEP, put out a long memorandum to faculty showing the members of the task force designed to study the issue of implementing the law safely, and probably assigning certain areas of the university as gun-free, which the law allows.

I am not involved in that, and if I were asked I would not serve on that because I feel that it’s backwards-thinking. I don’t understand how any particular area of a campus can be gun-free, and not the entire campus. If a gun is dangerous in a child-care room, if a gun is dangerous in a laboratory, that same gun is dangerous in my classroom. So I think that they’re just trying to think the best they can out of a terrible situation, and I don’t have any sympathy for that line of thought.

Q. Was part of the university’s goal in sending out this list of task-force members to let professors know these are the people you can talk to about this issue?

A. Of course, yeah. They’re faced with this absolutely idiotic and cynical law, and they’re trying to do the best they can to abide by state law. So they’re going to try to put in as many gun-free areas as they can and try to make people feel as safe as they can, and I sympathize with that. I just don’t believe in that. I think the law is wrong. It needs to be challenged in court, and I think an injunction needs to be put in place so it does not go into effect in September of next year.

Q. I saw in your blog post that you mentioned last week’s shooting at Delta State University. How has that influenced your thinking and the broader thinking around the campus?

A. I don’t know about the broader thinking, I’m sorry, but it was that incident that brought the TV station into my classroom to see what I thought. They must have seen some of my writings on the issue. But [the Delta State shooting] was terrifying to me because Mississippi has very lax gun laws. I’m not 100 percent sure, but I believe they have a campus-carry law. And here we have one professor shooting and killing another. It’s a fantastically tragic reminder of what can happen in any situation where one person has a gun. Anybody can lose their temper. And a gun that’s in easy reach is dangerous.

Q. What do you hope happens in this next year before the legislation goes into effect, and where do you hope the discussion goes?

A. Well, I don’t know. I’m not in favor of a discussion. I’m adamant that the law is unfair and probably unconstitutional. I’m hoping that the law will be taken to court and it will never go into effect.